Beryl Markham could write rings around all of those who consider themselves writer. Ernest Hemingway thought so. “I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.” If this did not intrigue you, nothing would.
The events described in Beryl Markham’s biography are as remarkable as the writing itself, and even though, as any autobiography, it was embellished to a certain degree, and may have been ghost-written by one of her husbands, one fact stands to be true – Beryl Markham’s life was one hell of a adventure story. Markham describes her life in a language that is vivid and delightfully poetic.
Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.’ It is all of these things but one thing – it is never dull.
Beryl Markham grew up in Kenya, and while her illustrious love-life could put all of us couch-potatoes to shame (the Royal family paid her off to end an affair with the Duke of Gloucester), the greatest love of her life was Africa. She grew up on her father’s farm, learned to hunt with the local tribesmen, played midwife to her father’s racehorses and was attacked by a neighbor’s pet lion. At 16, she was married off (a subject she does cover in her autobiography). At 17, she starts working with race horses, becoming the first female trainer in Kenya. She then turns to Pegasus’ of the air, learning to fly as one of the first commercial pilots in Kenya. In 1932, she became the first woman to fly the Atlantic west to east, hence the title West with the Night.
One of the most note-worthy elements of West with the Night is the fact that Beryl Markham treats the locals with utmost respect, at one point noting with sadness that her childhood friend will never get the same privileges as her due to race. Beryl was the only white child at her farm, and the friendship with the native children liberated her from much of the prejudice of the former colonizers. She mentions some of the native customs and superstitions and describes a number of fascinating characters, such as Makula who “could track a honeybee through a bamboo forest.”
Another fascinating character is a Benghazi brother-keeper, a woman of indistinguishable origin who was abducted as a child somewhere in Europe and brought into prostitution by her captors. She tells Markham and Blixen her story at her cockroach-infested brothel, where Beryl and her companion are forced to spend the night on their way to Europe.
Beryl Markham was a woman that followed her heart and lived in the moment, she lived a life of change, but a remarkable one all the same. I don’t know if this was her secret, but this line really struck a chord:
“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.”